Whose Message Is “Philomena”?
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
If you were a poor Irish woman forced by the nuns to give up your child 50 years ago, would you want to find out what had happened to your long-lost son?
A woman named Philomena Lee did. And she teamed up with a down-and-out journalist named Martin Sixsmith to search for her son.
It’s a true story. Kind of a detective story.
Martin Sixsmith wrote a book about the search, titled “The Lost Son of Philomena Lee.” And director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) has made it into a movie starring Steve Coogan as Sixsmith and Dame Judi Dench as the eponymous Philomena.
Dame Judi Dench needs little introduction. From playing M in the “James Bond” films to her appearances in such movies as “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Notes on a Scandal,” she is a British treasure. Steve Coogan you may not know quite as well, but you will recognize him as “Part No. 4 in someone else’s movie,” to use his own description.
“Philomena” is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Stephen Frears likes making movies about real-life people. “When it’s about a real person, the audience sort of believes it. So the fact that we can produce the real Philomena … you start off much further down the track.”
Funnyman Steve Coogan (“The Trip”) not only took on the role of Martin Sixsmith, he also co-wrote the script.
“In my state as a writer, you sort of get bored with just writing comedy for its own sake,” says Coogan. “I just thought, I want to talk about something that is about something.”
Nonetheless he inserted a sense of humor into a somewhat grim story.
As Frears tells it, “I said to Martin, ‘You are a good sport allowing Steve to play you.’ Steve is much more outrageous and with a sense of the ridiculous. Martin Sixsmith is now a rather distinguished historian.”
“I felt a connection to Martin — a liberal intellectual,” confides Coogan. “But I also knew who Philomena was: A working class Irish woman. And her story could have happened to anyone.”
The contrast between the two makes it work. Martin is a cynical atheist; Philomena a devout Catholic. He is gay; she a “fallen woman.”
“I want to show both sides, show some balance,” says Coogan. “I spoke to Philomena, I spoke to Martin, to find out where they were coming from. I put a lot of myself into Martin.”
Here the nuns are the obstacle, burning the adoption records, refusing to help them locate the boy they’d sold to American parents.
“People want to hear the confrontation with the nuns,” says Coogan. “It’s important to express that anger.”
But as Philomena says, “Isn’t it exhausting being angry all the time?”
“In my anger toward the church as an institution, I didn’t want to castigate people of simple faith,” declares Coogan. “My parents are people like that. I respect them. They are good people. Through Philomena, I want to dignify that.”
In the film (as in real life) Philomena forgave the nuns. “This is not a rally cry against the church or politics,” she insists. “In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith.”
“She’s a better person than Martin, and she’s Catholic,” says Steve Coogan. “She seems to be at a better place at the end of the film than he is.” It’s not clear whether he’s really talking about Martin Sixsmith or himself.